‘Jelly’s Last Jam’ Review: Pasadena Playhouse Production Brings a Too-Rarely Revived Classic Jazz Musical Back to Rousing Life

It’s been just over one year since the Tonys gave the Pasadena Playhouse an award for regional theater, and that honor looks more justified than ever now that the venue is presenting a much-needed production of “Jelly’s Last Jam.” It feels like they’re re-earning that brass medallion, rather than coasting on it, with a fresh production of writer-director George C. Wolfe’s early ‘90s hit, a show that that helped changed the course of stage musicals and helped set a course for jazz consciousness on Broadway, yet can barely get a revival to save its life. The Playhouse is doing God’s work here, in the service of a show set in jazz purgatory.

There are some logical explanations for why “Jelly’s Last Jam” still feels like a household name, as indelible titles go, while getting a production mounted is nearly impossible. It feels huge enough to belong in a major Broadway house; in L.A., by rights, it ought to be playing the Ahmanson. But while it demands a casting director dredge up a small army of inordinately talented singers and tap dancers, it also has a Wolfe book concerned with race, ego and self-implosion, which make it more of a natural for the Taper (where, in fact, the show first opened back in 1991, before transferring to Broadway). When you’ve got a show that is meant to feel huge — and pretty much is — but is also better serviced by a fairly intimate space, who you gonna call? Tony knows: It’s the Pasadena Playhouse.

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“Jelly” got a very short fresh look as part of New York’s Encore series earlier this year, but it’s L.A. where the show has settled in a little more for a real run (which ends this Sunday). That’s sort of ironically appropriate given that the show ends with jazz originator Jelly Roll Morton laid out on a coroner’s slab in the place where he died in 1941, Los Angeles … not entirely flatteringly portrayed in the script as a place where a jazz genius who thrived in Chicago can only come to a sorry end. With that major spoiler out of the way at the outset, Jelly Roll is led back through the events of his life by the Chimney Man, one of those pesky afterlife guides who insists on making the newly departed confront their misdeeds, when they might rather be having a more heavenly NDE. Fortunately, the two of them won’t just be focusing on Jelly Roll’s personal piccadellos, but exploring the history of early jazz, itself. It’s basically a metaphysical “This Is Your Life — Ken Burns Edition.”

Through most of the first act, Morton is a more than sympathetic figure. As played by John Clarence Stewart, he’s nearly as ebullient an evangelist for the new artform of jazz as Jon Batiste would be, if he had actually invented the stuff, or claimed to. But he’s torn between worlds — between the high art of his classical training as a well-to-do Creole lad in New Orleans and the low art he discovers eagerly investigating the music of brothels — and his beloved grandmother disowns him for betraying their noble heritage. (Karole Foreman portrays the spectral Gran Mimi, who’s as much horror-movie wraith as prickly matriarch.) Once he’s cut adrift, Jelly Roll finds all the community he needs in the company of his best friend and wingman, Jack the Bear (Wilkie Ferguson III), and the sultry, soulful club owner Anita (Jasmine Amy Rogers). But these two don’t notice that, as Jelly Roll’s reputation rises, he’s getting high on his own supply — of sheer arrogrance — until he pulls some dick moves that send them into each other’s arms.

“Jelly Roll’s Last Jam” is the rare musical that dares to end Act 1 on a deeply sour note, as the ugly side of its hero is exemplified in a production number, “Dr. Jazz,” that has the dancing ensemble wearing disturbing minstrel masks. It’s a risky enough move that you may be left at intermission wondering whether he can redeem himself at all in the second act, knowing what we know about his ultimate end — and knowing that the Chimney Man hasn’t exactly made it sound like Jelly Roll’s later life was filled with bright spots. Indeed, it’s not all sunshine and roses as the later going finds the protagonist making some increasingly poor choices on his way to being down and out in L.A. But some of those choices are thrust upon him by the 1930s version of the entertainment industry. There are some brilliant bits of staging as Jelly Roll encounters the only white characters in the show — played by the Black ensemble using masks or puppetry — who ensure that a Black genius won’t get too uppity. Sometimes, Jelly Roll’s sense of entitlement is aggravating, when he’s being a purist about the new offshoots of jazz that are usurping his particular brand. Sometimes, his outrage at being shut out is entirely justified. It’s rarely easy for any of us to distinguish in real time between actual aggrievements and imagined ones, and that makes it easier to have stock in Wolfe’s anti-hero when Jelly is just being a jerk.

Truth be told, feeling sympathy for him in his final, forlorn days is more of an intellectual act than one you leap to instinctively in watching the show. It’s not always easy to tell whether that’s just inherent in Wolfe’s book or whether there could have been something more done to draw us into Jelly Roll’s tragedy as well as his toxicity. But it sure is fun going up with Stewart in the lead role, even if something feels missing in the coming down. Once we’ve seen him in the early part of the show do a mutual tap number with the actor who plays his younger self (Doran Butler), his talent and joie de vivre have made a big down payment on the forgiveness we’ll be asked to afford him later. But in some ways, the show is destined to be skewed if it has an Anita as great as this production’s. Jasmine Amy Rogers becomes the heart of the show, transcending what could be a stock wronged-woman character to pay testimony to all the women who’ve ever stayed wild while putting down roots. I’ll admit it: I had moments of wishing the show could be retrofitted to become “Anita: The Musical.”

But “Jelly’s Last Jam” is really ultimately an ensemble piece, and the amount of sheer talent on view at any given time is staggering. Director Kent Gash and choreographer Dell Howett let no dull or insufficently staged moments transpire in a show that is always finding life-saving delight in the power of dance, despite the Chimney Man’s best efforts to gently nudge the hero off this mortal coil. Special credit is due to the sensual Greek chorus that is the Hunnies (Naomi C. Walley, Janaya Mahealani Jones and the intriguingly named dance captain, Cyd Charisse Glover-Hill). Watch the way that these sirens set themselves up as props for a pool game the main characters are playing, and you may never think of pool as anything less than deeply sexy again.

Morton is seen as a man who refused to compromise, even to anything so seemingly harmless as bending a little to the new styles of jazz. (It’s probably the only musical you’ll ever see that includes a rousing swing music and dancing number… to exemplify what the hero sees as the end of all that is good and true.) “Jelly’s Last Jam,” meanwhile, is a show that makes the case that you can have it all, from resonant social commentary to the kind of thrilling hoofing that’s completely unbeholden to any deeper meaning. Contemporary shows like “Hadestown” may be pulling off similar stuff, but it’s good to have this one so rousingly back.

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